Monday, 28 April 2014

Interconnections: From William Burroughs to Steely Dan to William Gibson (Part Two)


Burroughs had his own career as a recording artist, releasing a series of spoken-word albums; his first official LP, in 1965, produced at and issued by the English Bookshop in Paris (42, rue de Seine on the Left Bank), was Call Me Burroughs. The Beatles apparently all had copies of the record, as well as art dealer Robert Fraser and members of the Rolling Stones. He also experimented with tape ‘cut-ups’ in much the same way as his writing – the recordings he made with Ian Sommerville in London were eventually released as Break through in Grey Room in 1986. 1990 saw the acclaimed release of Dead City Radio, an album which served as a musical vehicle for Burroughs’ spoken words; the following year, the film version of Naked Lunch, directed by David Cronenberg, helped to consolidate his relevance to a new generation. Throughout his career, he regarded collaboration as an essential part of the creative process; he later worked with artists such as Laurie Anderson, Kurt Cobain, R.E.M., Patti Smith, Tom Waits and also, appropriately, Donald Fagen of Steely Dan. Sonic Youth paid overt homage in a series of albums, and were among those to visit Burroughs at his home in Lawrence, Kansas (in 1993). 

An American writer based in Canada, William Gibson’s 1984 novel Neuromancer popularised the science fiction ‘Cyberpunk’ sub-genre [1], marked by a fascination with technology. Gibson has confessed that “I had to teach myself not to write too much like Burroughs”, though his own work remains highly acclaimed and influential. His novels are also known for their frequent allusions to Steely Dan, a band whose name was itself taken from Naked Lunch. While suggesting the use of the name shouldn’t be taken too literally, Donald Fagen conceded that “we have certainly picked up on some of his world view. I admire Burroughs a lot.” 

Gibson has described Steely Dan’s music as “among the most genuinely subversive oeuvres in late 20th-century pop”. Direct references to their songs in his work include Barrytown (a location), The Gentleman Loser (a bar), Here at the Western World (another bar), and Klaus and the Rooster (characters). Steely Dan, formed in New York, were ostensibly a conventional seventies soft-rock act. They were nonetheless labelled “the perfect musical antiheroes for the Seventies” by Rolling Stone magazine – possibly owing to the sometimes sinister effect of their cryptic, often obscure lyrics hidden within smooth jazz-rock arrangements, suggesting subversive intent; according to Danny Weizmann (in Too Cool), they “pushed the most potent lyric pills since mid-Dyl[an].” 

Gibson is an outwardly conventional figure in appearance (as Burroughs was); he is an innovator in terms of ideas, if not language. The last twenty years particularly have seen him moving beyond traditional sci-fi in a series of novels exploring what happens to humanity in an increasingly technologically-dominated society, tackling the nature of ‘virtual reality’ and the role of the Internet in shaping the modern world, addressing the insidious nature of corporate advertising and branding. Gibson investigates the implications for the very near future, in effect commenting on contemporary life; in this respect he shares an affinity with English author J.G. Ballard, another admirer of Burroughs, who also moved beyond the conventions of science fiction. Gibson’s work has been characterised by critic John Clute as “SF for the new century.” Whilst the Steely Dan references have lessened in recent years, he still titled his 1999 novel All Tomorrow’s Parties, a nod to Lou Reed, the Velvet Underground and their counter-cultural legacy. That book also featured a mysterious character known as the ‘Tao man’, who Gibson has explained as “some sort of avatar connected to the late William Burroughs. An unconscious expression of Burroughsness.”

However, there is always a flip-side to these rich interconnections: Billy Idol paid a dubious homage to Gibson with his 1993 Cyberpunk album, featuring a track entitled ‘Neuromancer’; an enterprise mildly described by Gibson as “very silly.” Also preferably ignored are the subsequent adoption of Deacon Blues (a dire 1980s band appropriating a Steely Dan song title), and The Wild Boys (another Burroughs title and, extending the connection, dismal Duran Duran hit; a group whose own name derived from the 1968 science fiction film Barbarella). In his later years, all manner of unlikely musicians, without any obvious connection to him or signs of influence, began to see a Burroughs photo-opportunity as an ideal means of establishing their own counter-cultural credentials – chief among them Sting and the ubiquitous Bono. While the music of Steely Dan and the novels of William Gibson have a devoted following, they are essentially cult interests. Despite the avant-garde origins and often challenging nature of his work, it is Burroughs who has permeated popular culture, for better or worse.

The influences and the influenced: Call Me Burroughs (Original Cover Design: Tientje Louw, Cover Photo: Harriet Crowther); Neuromancer (Front Cover Illustration by Steve Crisp); Cyberpunk (Cover Art by Mark Frauenfelder)

[1] OED definition: A genre of science fiction set in a lawless subculture of an oppressive society dominated by computer technology; it has been said that “without Naked Lunch there would probably be no cyberpunk” (Richard Kadrey and Larry McCaffery, Storming the Reality Studio: A Casebook of Cyberpunk and Postmodern Fiction, 1991)

Thursday, 3 April 2014

Interconnections: From William Burroughs to Steely Dan to William Gibson (Part One)


The novels of William S. Burroughs, notably the notorious Naked Lunch, written in the late 1950s and early 1960s, have exerted a disproportionate influence on counter-cultural artists, authors, film-makers, and musicians over subsequent decades. Among those influenced by Burroughs are the 1970s pop group Steely Dan, who took their name from a rubber appendage in Naked Lunch; it is possible to trace a line through that band to contemporary science fiction author William Gibson in the 1980s and 90s, a writer known for references to Steely Dan lyrics in his work. It is but one instance of the continued relevance of Burroughs in cultural life, a legacy primarily illustrated through the medium of popular music.


“It is a book unlike any other. Famous, infamous, derided, and banned but also recognised as a work of genius. For fifty years, it has tantalized, shocked, baffled, and inspired. It simultaneously holds a significant place in postmodern literature while retaining its iconic, underground allure, resisting diverse critical attempts to define and explain it. It is an aberrant concoction, stylistically brilliant and structurally disorientating, obscene and blasphemous and yet satirically cathartic and redemptive.”

[Oliver Harris and Ian MacFadyen, Preface to Naked Lunch @ 50: anniversary essays, 2009]

Burroughs came to prominence in parallel with the Beat Generation [1], which he described as a “sociological movement… a cultural revolution”, and is often cited as Godfather and Mentor of the Beats (though a reluctant pioneer himself, never keen on being allied with any group or cause). His reputation was forged with Naked Lunch, published in 1959, which completes the seminal trilogy of Beat works (after Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Jack Kerouac’s On the Road). His work has become a byword for the transgressive in modern literature; his status as an iconoclastic figure was recognised in his appearance on the cover of the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper in 1967, together with numerous major cultural figures. He is credited with introducing the terms ‘Blade Runner’ and ‘heavy metal’ to popular culture – in The Soft Machine, the character Uranian Willy is described as “the Heavy Metal Kid” – a reference initially taken up by the band Steppenwolf, which came to be used for an entire musical genre.

Whilst acknowledging that many readers would find it ‘disgusting’, contemporary critic Mary McCarthy declared in her New York Times review that the almost-plotless Naked Lunch “must be the first space novel, the first serious piece of science fiction.” Avant-garde and experimental it may have been, but many readers must have been not only ‘disgusted’, but thoroughly confused, “as Burroughs's alter-ego William Lee and a shifting cast of protagonists drift in and out of heroin-laced visions of scoring drugs, sexual obsession and degradation, bizarre political plots, and even stranger medical experiments.”

Naked Lunch (whose title was suggested by Kerouac) can be seen as a synthesis of Burroughs’ myriad interests: philosophy, science, language, consciousness, mind travel, altered states and pharmacology. Recognised as a radical, subversive artistic statement, the book was subjected to censorship and faced charges of obscenity (it was banned after a trial in Boston in 1962, a verdict overturned four years later); it repulsed mainstream western society – read as a reaction against its values – challenging the use of language as a means of political, sexual and social control. For Burroughs biographer Barry Miles, it remains “a devastating attack on the hypocrisy, greed, racism, addiction to power and mindless suburban consumerism of the postwar American way of life.”

The origins of Burroughs’ pioneering works lie with Brion Gysin, a British-Canadian poet and painter, and his invention of the cut-up technique – using random juxtapositions of text which are literally cut into pieces and re-assembled. This was adopted by Burroughs when the two were living at the Beat Hotel, Paris (9 rue Gît-le-Coeur, in the Latin Quarter) in the 1950s; he acknowledged Gysin as “the first to create cut-ups.” Burroughs had been attempting to edit Naked Lunch for several years, and finally completed it using this technique. Each of the cut-up novels which followed Naked LunchThe Soft Machine, The Ticket That Exploded, Nova Express – proved especially influential; David Bowie has by his own admission made use of the method in his lyric writing. Another musician active in New York in the mid-to-late 1970s, David Byrne of Talking Heads, has described the cut-up technique as a means of “achieving a freedom from the strictures of conventional language and thought”.

Naked Lunch & Soft Machine UK Corgi covers, courtesy of

1960s Canterbury-based band The Soft Machine – whose leader, Daevid Allen, had lived at the Beat Hotel – became one of the first Burroughs-inspired names for musical groups, a list which may have begun with the Mugwumps in New York in the early 1960s, and later included Nova Mob and Thin White Rope in the 1980s and 90s. The Velvet Underground are one of several bands to acknowledge the influence of Burroughs, the subject of their 1970 song ‘Lonesome Cowboy Bill’; their songwriter Lou Reed said that “Burroughs alone made us pay attention to the realities of contemporary life and gave us the energy to explore the psyche without a filter.” An early instance of lyrical inspiration drawn from Burroughs can be found in the 1970 film Performance, where Mick Jagger’s ‘Memo from Turner’ includes the line “the man who squats behind the man who works the Soft Machine”.

With his transgressive fiction and anti-authoritarian stance, Burroughs is regarded as a significant influence on punk – during the 1970s he lived close to its major venues in New York’s Bowery district, CBGBs and Max’s Kansas City, where he could often be found, and wrote a column for rock magazine Crawdaddy. Several musicians active in that scene took inspiration from the work of Burroughs – for example, both Iggy Pop (explicitly in his song ‘Gimme Some Skin’) and Patti Smith (in her debut album Horses). In addition, the lyric of Iggy Pop’s ‘Lust for Life’ has its source in the ‘operation rewrite’ section of Burroughs’ novel The Ticket That Exploded – the character of Johnny Yen, strip teases, torture films and “hypnotising chickens” can all be found here. His enduring influence extended to the UK in the same period, where it can also be located in Joy Division’s 1979 song ‘Interzone’ – the imagined setting of Naked Lunch – which also became the title of a respected British science fiction magazine founded in the early 1980s [a publication whose Leeds origins will be explored in a future post].

[1] OED: a movement of young people in the 1950s and early 1960s who rejected conventional society, valuing self-expression and favouring modern jazz. Wikipedia: Central elements of “Beat” culture included rejection of received standards, innovations in style, experimentation with drugs, alternative sexualities, an interest in Eastern religion, a rejection of materialism, and explicit portrayals of the human condition.